Social Media & Public Opinion

Social media is often touted as an important influencer on public opinion and political causes. The Pew Research Centre just released an interesting survey called Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion.

From the report:

At times the Twitter conversation is more liberal than survey responses, while at other times it is more conservative. Often it is the overall negativity that stands out. Much of the difference may have to do with both the narrow sliver of the public represented on Twitter as well as who among that slice chose to take part in any one conversation.

So why is the twitter conversation often inconsistent? The report cites a number of reasons.

  • Those who get news on twitter – and particularly those who tweet news – are very different demographically from the public
  • The overall reach of twitter is modest – just 13% of adults said they ever use Twitter
  • Twitter users are considerably younger than the general public
  • The twitter audience is broader than the sample of a traditional national survey. People under 18 participate in twitter, while national surveys are limited to adults 18 and older. Similarly, twitter conversations also may include those living anywhere in the world.
  • Twitter users who choose to share their views on events vary with the topics in the news. Those who tweeted about the California same-sex marriage ruling were likely not the same group as those who tweeted about Obama’s inaugural or Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan.

Social media in general, and twitter in particular definitely influence public opinion and decision makers. But on any given topic it can’t be relied upon as a reflection of public opinion.



  1. David Collier-Brown

    I’d expect self-selected groups to differ greatly from the norm: I used to follow netnews, which contained multiple non-overlapping groups (of madmen (;-))

    I’m mildly surprised twitter falls into the not-representative-of-the-norm category. I wonder what other social media have non-representative customer bases…